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How car thieves exploit your high-tech keys

By Posted : November 01, 2017

Criminals are using a new mix of high-tech and low-tech means to steal cars today, but owners can protect themselves by understanding these methods and guarding against them.

On the low-tech side, more drivers are simply giving crooks the keys to the kingdom -- leaving their cars unlocked with the keys inside. On the high-tech side, criminals are using high-tech devices to hack into vehicles with keyless entry systems and swipe whatever is inside the car, or, worse steal the vehicle.

"We've seen several incidents around the country (of hackers using devices to break into vehicles)," says Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

Even if the car isn't stolen, taking personal items from inside cars can be lucrative on its own: Each year, more than $1 billion worth of personal property is stolen from vehicles, according to the NICB.

How they're doing it

Those crooks are targeting vehicles equipped with keyless entry systems, which use radio frequency transmissions. The systems send a signal between your key fob and your vehicle, Scafidi says. Typically the fobs will unlock your car doors when you're a couple of feet away from your vehicle.

But with a device called a "power amplifier," thieves can search for key fobs that are up to 100 meters away and activate them to pop your door locks within seconds. Some of the devices can be purchased online for less than $20.

Just a few years ago, high-tech car break-ins were rarely encountered by law enforcement officials, according to the NICB. But now they're drawing the attention of auto theft investigators across the country.

One way to keep these high-tech thieves from getting into your car, according to experts, is to store your key fobs in a metal box -- or even the microwave or freezer -- to cut the signal.

More recenlty, thieves have been using high-tech devices that can intercept the frequencies emitted from key remotes when clicked. This allows them to enter and steal the car.

Keys to the kingdom

Thieves, however, don't necessarily need a power amplifier or other high-tech intercepter to gain access to your vehicle -- particularly if you are careless with your keys.

Nationally, an increasing number of cars with the keys left inside are being stolen, though car thefts are on the decline overall.

In 2015, the most current data available, one in eight stolen vehicled had the keys or fob inside, according to the NICB.

When insurance can help

Even if you do leave your keys in your car, your insurer is likely to honor your stolen vehicle claim, provided you've bought optional comprehensive car insurance.

But you need to make sure you have the proper insurance, or you'll be paying out of pocket to replace your stolen car or your possessions.

Almost every state requires you to carry liability insurance, but drivers of older cars might drop comprehensive coverage in order to save money. If you do and your car is swiped, you'll be paying out of pocket for a new vehicle.

For the belongings stolen from your vehicle, you may have to rely on the personal property protection of your homeowners insurance or renters insurance for coverage.

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